Genuine progress – beyond why and what to how

Productivity - how to make it happen

Despite tangible, immediate opportunities to fuel productivity and growth, many leaders will fail to act. Here’s how to overcome the barriers and achieve personal and organisational success.

No nation, no community, no business wants to experience declining prosperity nor leave their inheritors worse off. Yet that’s a real prospect for many organisations and countries, including Australia. Growth in the productivity of public and private enterprises is pivotal to economic and social progress.

Improved workplace practices, innovation and investment will be key to productivity growth. Producing more of the same – whether products or services – is not a recipe for sustained prosperity. More output must be produced from less input, but also better business and social outcomes. This is particularly true in sectors demanding substantial investment with long-run consequences, like transport, energy and water infrastructure, health and education.

In this final article, I’ll outline a practical approach to deliver progress, moving beyond why – the productivity business case (here) – and what can be done (here) to how.

Cultivating the will and wherewithal

In a previous article I introduced the Anatomy of Opportunity (illustrated below), which identified a shift in work practices that can unleash the latent potential in both public and private sector organisations.

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Yet despite the immediate opportunities and benefits available, many ‘leaders’ are unlikely to embrace such work practices. Often they’ll not perceive a problem in current work practices, nor believe in the merit of improved work methods. Critically, many simply won’t feel a need to change to sustain their personal success. The resulting inertia thwarts real progress.

Furthermore, the financially, socially and technologically complex world in which we now operate demands skills and competencies that can be scarce relative to needs. Australia has observed a decline in leadership skills, also performing poorly on collaboration and commercialisation of innovation [1]. It’s a private and public sector issue.

It follows that to enhance productivity and prosperity there’s a need to tackle gaps in both motivation and skills.

Leading with humility

Businesses and government agencies must seek out and enable people with the passion to lead change and drive progress. But a word of caution: check these people also possess a healthy humility. The complexity of situations in which we work, coupled with each person’s inherent knowledge gaps and cognitive biases means no individual can have “the answer”. Indeed, it’s likely that even the problems are inadequately defined. So we need leaders not with answers, fixed mindsets and unbridled confidence but those with great questions and open, learning, collaborative dispositions.

Creating the impetus for change

There’s a saying in change management circles: “Don’t waste a good crisis.” The idea is that crises can be valuable. Unless faced with an imminent crisis and direct threats, people will avoid change. If such a crisis doesn’t exist, a leader needs to create the case for change and gear their people’s success to supporting that change. This is where well-crafted “stretch goals” for business and project managers can be useful to incentivise change.

Employing the power of questions

In my last article I advocated the question “Is this the best we can do?” It’s a powerful question because it opens thinking to what “best” means and how it might be achieved.

Indeed, carefully crafted questions can do a lot of heavy lifting. They engage people in non-threatening ways, help to reframe discussions, and open up new avenues for solutions. Here’s a few example questions that can trigger powerful conversations, insight and action:

  • What are the key emerging vulnerabilities of our business model?
  • How are risks likely to evolve over the design and operating life of the asset we’re creating?
  • What better information would enable us to make transformative business decisions?
  • What specifically is the next most useful action we should take?
Focusing on real work

People are busy, working hard to meet their priorities. They don’t welcome distractions or additional work. So it’s important to focus productivity-improving actions on the jobs people need to get done. Make it about better placed effort, not more effort. Some of the questions that might help are:

  • How can we be sure we’re solving the right problem?
  • What assumptions are we making that may not stand up to scrutiny?
  • How could we design our project to gain widespread support?
  • What tasks should we stop because they’re not creating value?
Making it a team sport

When investing money, people understand the merit of having a portfolio of investments. The risks and returns are spread and balanced, avoiding the risk of losing everything when “all the eggs are in one basket”. The same is true when driving change. Distribute the load across a number of (ideally cross-functional) teams. Some will make breakthroughs more quickly than others. Lessons can be shared and multiplied, and people don’t suffer the burden and perceived risk of leading change alone.

Coaching to sustain progress

Changing work practices can be hard. People can struggle to retain a shift in mindset or problem solving approach. They can revert to siloed behaviour when collaboration is required. Innovative solutions can get watered down or avoided in favour of the comfort of business-as-usual. It’s just like learning a new sporting skill. It takes practice and people benefit from the support of a good coach to sustain their focus and realise success.

Measure the benefits

Assessing the benefits of improved practices can be invaluable. While it helps justify a better approach to superiors or investors, it also builds confidence and sustains effort within teams. Sometimes, because of the way that projects are conceived and evolve, it can be hard to track changes in approach and the resulting benefits. So define the expected, base case or business-as-usual solution at the outset of an improvement initiative so there’s a benchmark. Then you can get proof of progress.

A reality check

So now take a moment to reflect. Which of the suggestions above are hard to achieve if your team is genuinely committed to improve performance? From experience the main challenge will be securing a good coach. Ideally you’d identify a coach with skills in managing change and systems- and design-thinking, with business acumen. Nonetheless, this needn’t stall progress. A multi-disciplinary team with a commitment to respectful challenge, collaboration and learning can make big inroads in a short space of time.

Rewards are there for the taking

While Australia’s central bank governor, Glenn Stevens, pleads for “animal spirits” to take on more risk in fuelling innovation and investment, major improvements can be made while actually reducing enterprise risk.

From experience I’m in no doubt that improved productivity, innovation and growth is within our immediate grasp. By applying insights of the human dynamics that shape thought, problem solving and behaviour in our teams and organisations, latent potential can be unleashed. It’s hard to conceive of an enterprise where there’s not a strategy, program or project that wouldn’t benefit.

What are you waiting for? Start unleashing your potential today.

[1] AIG (2015) Addressing Enterprise Leadership in Australia, Australian Industry Group, Sydney.